The Iron Triangle: Users, Advertisers, And Spam

There is a Tom Fishburne cartoon from 2008 called “Poser Marketing.” It depicts a can of soda, brand unrecognizable, anthropomorphized with arms, legs and a face. There are three hipster-looking youngsters sitting in the corner. “Fine,” declares Soda Can Guy, “You win! I give up trying to interrupt you with TV ads you stubbornly refuse to watch. You can be my Myspace friend or watch my YouTube videos instead.” The hipsters are unmoved; only one of them bothers to offer a reply: “Whatever, loser.”

I have used this cartoon more times than I can count -- and yet, and yet, we continue to have the same conversation. “Why do you want to be on social media?” I ask my client or potential client. “Because we want people to know about our product,” they reply. “Because we have a lot to say.” “Because people don’t read our newsletters anymore.”

Let’s assume, Dear Reader, that you, as an enthusiast of this column, are more savvy than this. Let’s assume that you know all about “Relationship Marketing,” that you would never create a Facebook Page and use it to immediately start pushing your product.



Of course not. You would create a Facebook Page and use it to befriend your customers. You would ask them what they care about, invite them to share their pictures, maybe tell them a few jokes, and then start pushing your product.

Here’s the problem: If everyone is using relationship marketing, none of it’s effective anymore. When the first company uses social media to connect with you, in a transparent and authentic way, it’s refreshing. When the 50th company tries to do so, it makes you want to take out your earring and use the pointy bit to stab yourself in the eye.

Facebook, to its credit, has been remarkably vigilant in, shall we say, not being more awful than it could be. It did an excellent job, for example, in curtailing the Farmville threat to the user experience -- a factor that hasn’t gone unnoticed. Following a dismaying Zynga quarterly report back in July, JP Morgan analyst Doug Anmuth said, “The biggest factor impacting current performance appears to be the way Facebook is surfacing gaming content on its platform” -- basically, that Facebook no longer allows gaming content to “surface” on its platform, non-stop, unsolicited, uncontrollable and undesirable. And Zynga continues to pay the price, earlier this week firing 5% of its staff during the iPad Mini announcement.

Win for Facebook users, loss for Zynga. And, ultimately, a loss for Facebook. We are only valuable to the extent we can be monetized, but the more you try to monetize us, the more we resist. The tension for Facebook -- and all other social networks -- is between the user as product and the advertiser as customer. Since advertisers hold the purse strings, they tend to win this game in the long run, giving rise to Hugh MacLeod’s First Law: “All online social networks eventually turn into a swampy mush of spam.” The irony, of course, is that once the advertisers win, the audience gets sick of the spam. If an ad runs on Facebook and there is no one there to see it, it does not get clicke,  and the social network does not get paid.

But this week was a happy week for Facebook, which, though posting another quarterly loss, did make gains in mobile ad revenue. Mark Zuckerberg said, “I think our opportunity on mobile is the most misunderstood aspect of Facebook today," and COO Sheryl Sandberg said, “We've been very focused on getting more ads into news feeds -- it's one of our primary priorities.” Great. All those companies itching to be on social media so they can tell me how great they are can now do so on my smartphone.

Be careful what you wish for, Sheryl. Remember Hugh’s First Law. And remember this: In the game of advertiser vs. consumer, you need to keep both parties at the table if you want to win

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